Fiction Philip Caputo The Voyage

ISBN 13: 9780679450399

The Voyage

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9780679450399: The Voyage

On a June morning in the century's infancy, Cyrus Braithwaite -- without explanation -- orders his three teenage sons to sail from their Maine home and not return until September. The three boys and a friend board the Braithwaites' forty-six-foot schooner and begin a perilous journey down the East Coast, bound for the Florida Keys. A storm abruptly ends their passage, leaving them stranded in Cuba, but when they telegraph their father for help, he does not respond. After their ordeal is over, no one in the family ever again mentions the voyage.

Now, almost a century later, Cyrus's great-granddaughter Sybil is determined to know the hidden heart of the story: Why did Cyrus send his sons to sea? Why was their mother in a Boston hospital? What role was played in the drama by Lockwood Braithwaite, the enigmatic child of Cyrus's first marriage? Sybil's discoveries will change the way she thinks about herself, her family, and the America whose ideals the Braithwaites once embodied.

The author of A Rumor of War -- acclaimed as one of the great books about Vietnam -- here gives us a rich and gripping tale of adventure, courage, and the persisting effects of long-held secrets. The Voyage is a powerful novel about a family whose ways and deeds were once a template for the nation.

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Review:

The title voyage of Philip Caputo's sweeping new novel commences under exceedingly strange circumstances: in June 1900, Cyrus Braithwaite, a gruff Yankee granite magnate, orders his three teenage sons to board the family's beloved schooner, sail away from their imposing Maine summer home, and stay away until September. His sole explanation for this sudden expulsion: "It's a new century, boys." Puzzled, abashed, but also intrigued by the adventure forced upon them, Nathaniel, Eliot, and Andrew leave behind their privileged WASP childhood and head out to sea--bound, they decide more or less on a whim, for the Florida keys.

Adventures are slow to shape themselves at first, but once the Braithwaite boys enlist the help of blond, worldly wise Yale dropout Will Terhune, the pace quickens considerably. Nat, who serves as skipper, and is also the most naive and most ambitious of the brothers, nearly dies in a bar fight in lower Manhattan. Fourteen-year-old Drew, the seasick-prone family rationalist, discovers a penchant for cold-blooded violence. Caught in a blow off the Carolinas, the boys limp the damaged schooner into Beaufort, South Carolina, their mother's birthplace, where an ancient aunt invites them to dinner and hints darkly at family secrets. Then, about two-thirds of the way in, what has seemed a leisurely coming-of-age story explodes into an elemental drama as a hurricane swallows the boat and spits it out on the desolate coast of Cuba. This, as it turns out, is but the first in a series of terrible reversals.

The Voyage is a departure for Caputo, a former foreign correspondent who made his name with a Vietnam memoir (A Rumor of War), and he does a fine job of conjuring up an age "when both the awareness of death and the hope of salvation were writ on every face." True, his framing device of a present-day Braithwaite descendant delving into her family's secret history is a bit forced and yes, the characters could use more depth. No matter. At some point, The Voyage becomes irresistible. --David Laskin

From the Publisher:


A conversation with Philip Caputo, author of The Voyage

Q: What inspired you to write a novel that begins with three young boys being
mysteriously sent off to sea by their own father?
A: The seed was planted by my late father-in- law, John Ware, a few years ago. He told me that he had just heard an intriguing tale from his first cousin. Back in 1899, their grandfather, one William Mimms Ware, had put three of his four sons on a schooner called Holly, gave each ten dollars, and told them to sail away and not return until September. The boys, ages 15, 13, and 12 (the youngest was John Ware's father, Edward Winslow Ware) left Hull, Massachusetts in June, and were not heard from until August, when a telegram from the American Legation in Havana was delivered to their father, informing him that his sons had been caught in a hurricane, shipwrecked on the Cuban coast, and rescued by Cuban fishermen. William then wired money to Havana for the boys' passage home.

That was as much as my father-in-law knew. The tale begged a lot of questions: Why did
William send the boys off on a dangerous voyage, without adult supervision? Where was their
mother, and what did she think of such an unusual and risky idea? Why had my father-in-law's
father never told his family about this astonishing adventure? I had been taking notes for some time for a series of novels and stories about an old Yankee clan the Braithwaites of Massachussetts and Maine with a dark, secret history. My imagination eventually integrated my father-in-law's true story with the fictional story of the Braithwaites, and The Voyage was born. I want to stress that Cyrus Braithwaite's motives were not those of William M. Ware, and that the Braithwaites' history is in no way intended to be a fictionalized history of the Wares.

Q: What sort of research went into The Voyage -- both in terms of the nautical details (from ship maintenance; to navigation; to storm patterns etc.) and also in terms of recreating life at the turn of the century in places such as Maine, downtown New York City, Key West, and Cuba?
A: The research was a combination of direct experience, interviews, and extensive reading. I've been a deep-sea fisherman for years, and have done some day-sailing, so I know something about boats, ships, and the sea. The considerable gaps in my knowledge were filled in by interviewing veteran yachtsmen and sailors like my father-in-law, and by reading a number of books and magazine articles, most of which are listed on the acknowledgements page of the
novel. But no amount of time spent in the library can substitute for hands-on experience.

Realizing that I didn't know what it was like to pilot a sailboat on a long ocean passage, I signed
up (in May, 1997) as a crewman on a yacht delivery from St. Marten, in the French West Indies,
to Newport, R.I. The vessel was a 52-foot Swan, and the 1,800-mile passage took a little under two weeks. The skipper, Capt. Andy Burton, and the mate, Herb Matthews, taught me the basics of celestial navigation and helmsmanship. It was a fairly uneventful trip, though we did encounter a 40-knot gale and 12-foot seas while crossing the Gulf Stream. The next summer, as a kind of refresher course in blue-water sailing, I helped Burton deliver a 48-foot sloop from Bermuda to Newport, a five-day passage.

The stuff about turn-of-the-century Maine, New York, Cuba, and Key West was gleaned from old photographs and from history and travel books. Also, I made three trips to Havana in 1978, 1979, and 1980, and as old Havana had changed little (except to grow much shabbier), I was able to draw on my travel notes and memories as well.

Q: When Cyrus Braithwaite puts his sons upon the sea the only explanation he offers is the cryptic remark, "It's a new century, boys. Yes indeed, a brand new century;" a comment all of his sons wrestle with throughout their journey. What is the significance of setting this story at the start of a new century and also of your writing it on the eve of yet another new century?
A: No cosmic significance here. I thought that readers in the closing months of the 20th century would find it interesting to read a novel set in the century's beginning when the automobile, electricity, telephones, and other innovations were regarded with the same breathless excitement as computers and the Internet are regarded today. Cyrus' comment was meant to suggest that the brand new century, which was greeted with such optimism, contained dark possibilities as well as bright ones.

Q: There are ideas in this novel about the nature of exile and also about the experiences that turn boys into men -- and the innocence that exists before the world has shown itself to be indifferent to our fates -- that you have dealt with before in your writing. How would you compare
The Voyage to your previous books?
A: The theme of exile or estrangement has been in almost everything I've written, particularly in Horn of Africa, Indian Country, and, obviously, in Exiles. Loss of innocence and the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood informs A Rumor of War. That said, I regard The Voyage as completing a process of departure from my previous work that was begun with the first two novellas in Exiles. The major themes in my first six books were war and its after effects on individuals and society -- war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. I have for years loved the sea and wanted to write a "sea story," but Vietnam had such a grip on my imagination that I wasn't able to until recently.

Q: There is a long literary tradition of stories about the sea (from Noah to the Greek classics to Moby Dick and The Old Man and The Sea). Did you have any of those works in mind while writing this book?
A: The Voyage is in large part a re-imagining of Apollonius of Rhodes' Voyage of the Argonauts, which in turn was based on the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. My novel doesn't slavishly follow its classical model in every detail, but there are several episodes and passages that directly parallel those in the myth; e.g. the golden fleece becomes the paschal candles the boys believe to be in the sunken ship, the Annisquam. Similarly, some of the characters are modern versions of the ancient heroes: Cyrus is King Pelias, Nathaniel is Jason, Eliot is Orpheus, Elvira, the santeria priestess, is Medea, the witch who is spirited off from her cruel father by the Argonauts. But again, the parallels are not exact, and not intended to be.

Q: Readers seem to have an enormous hunger for adventure stories, and even more specifically for stories about the sea, what do you think accounts for that?
A: America was a wild frontier not very long ago, in historical time. Today, an awful lot of
it is shopping malls and theme parks linked by Interstates. And life in the No-Smoking,
Buckle-Up, Litigious America of the Ever-Rising Dow has become so luxurious, safe, and
foolproof that it's numbingly dull. People have developed a craving for danger, risk, and
unpredictability. Most seek to satisfy this craving vicariously, in books and movies and computer games, but some seek to assauge their hunger directly, in "extreme" sports like skiing off cliffs or climbing mountains.

It's a paradox. Americans seem driven to make their lives ever more comfortable and secure, but once they do, they discover that something essential is missing -- an edge, a poignancy, a chance to test their mettle. They feel less alive and hunger for the excitement of the unknown, for the power of untamed nature. The sea, like the mountains, is one part of the natural world that has not been domesticated.

Q: Do you think that in the past it was possible to have a certain kind of adventure -- to take a kind of voyage to unfamiliar territory -- that science and exploration and technology has made pretty much impossible these days?
A: Yes. To experience the thrill of discovery we must now resort to artifice. For example, I
took a five-day solo backpacking trip in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness last year, on assignment for Men's Journal. I went to the least-traveled part of the Gila, avoided using trails whenever possible, and navigated by map and compass rather than relying on a GPS. Why? Because I wanted the unfamiliar and the untrodden. Trails are banal. Also, I didn't want to know where I was right down to the yard. But all the time I was aware that I was artificially imposing
restrictions and difficulties on myself. In the past, I would not have had any choice.

Q: As the boys travel South, you explore the contrast of a New England reserve vs. a Southern sensuality as well as the idea of logic vs. instinct. Do you think each of us is inherently programmed to veer more towards one of these poles than the other?
A: In a word, yes. It's the old business of the tension between right brain and left brain,
romanticism and rationalism, earth and air.

Q: Why did you structure this novel as a history of the Braithwaite family (as pieced
together by one of their descendants -- living in the 1990s) rather than as a straight
narrative?
A: The Braithwaites embody the Puritan or Protestant ethic, the Anglo-Saxon ideals that
were the cultural and social templates for America right up through WWII. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe -- Jews, Italians, Poles, etc. -- found this ethic and ideal congenial and sought to imitate them in their own lives through the process of assimilation. In the post-war period, but particularly after Vietnam and the 60s, the WASP lost his hegemony over our society. His inherited right to rule and his values came to be questioned, and in some cases, discarded as feminists, blacks, hispanics, and so forth began to demand equality on their terms.

I wanted to set the boys' experiences at sea in a specific historical and cultural context,
without which the tale of their voyage would be merely an adventure story. Structuring the novel as I did, the voyage becomes a long episode in the their family's history, which in many ways parallels the history of America. The boys set off to sea at a time when American society was almost exclusively white, Protestant, and patriarchal, and that is contrasted with the America of their descendant, Sybil Braithwaite -- an America that is far more diverse and feminized but also less coherent and orderly.

Q: Several of the women in this novel are keeping pretty major secrets about their own families and yet it is a woman who eventually fills in the blanks of this strange voyage. Were you exploring how women, as opposed to men, act as the guardians of family secrets and also truths?
A: Anyone who reads this novel should feel free to impart to it any meaning he or she
chooses. If I was exploring this idea, I wasn't doing so consciously; however, now that you've
brought it up, I think it's fair to compare Sybil with her great-grandmother, Elizabeth. The
social circumstances Elizabeth found herself in, the times she lived in, compelled her to be secretive and duplicitous. Sybil, on the other hand, is not under such constraints, and thus is free to pursue and expose the truth.

Q: You play with the idea that families have a "genetic memory." What do you mean
by that?
A: Basically, that just as a writer can imagine himself or herself into the lives of a novel's
characters, so can some people imagine what their ancestors' lives were like, and through the
power of imagination, reach reasonably truthful conclusions about them.

Q: You describe the earlier generations of the Braithwaite family as having, "that air of belonging to an America that belonged to them." What does that idea and this novel really say about how this country and how our understanding of the concept of family has changed over the past century?
A: The Braithwaites, as a family, are something of an anachronism -- they're an extended family, a clan, a tribe. Most families today are either nuclear families or single-parent families --
the equivalent of sub-atomic particles. There is a far greater degree of anomie in modern America. We've become a nation of isolates, with shallow roots and sketchy histories and uncertain ancestries. America is a lonelier place than it was in our grandparents' and great-grandparents' day. It's lonelier than I when I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s.

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